Freezing bugs can be, well, cool

There are many reasons one chooses a career in academics. But for biology professor Brent Sinclair, the main reason is simple. “It’s really cool,” he says.  And he should know.

Sinclair’s research focuses on the biology of arthropods in cold environments or, in simpler terms, freezing bugs. “That fact you can get these insects and their body temperature can drop to minus-30, minus-40, minus-50 and still survive is pretty amazing,” he says. “That’s the wow factor.”

Little is known about the factors leading to freezing survival in insects; Sinclair and his team remain fascinated with how they can survive internal ice formation, how energy use and cold exposure over winter can affect insect performance and what impacts climate change can, and will, have on numerous insect species.

“One of the philosophies of the research we do in the lab is that winter is really important,” he says. “People tend to gloss over winter; it’s cold out, hard to get places. But a lot of insect population changes are going to be governed by the sorts of conditions and things that happen over winter.”

Sinclair completed his BSc (Hons) and PhD research in zoology at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He took a three-year postdoc position at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, followed by an 18-month stint as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He has been at The University of Western Ontario since 2006.

Surprisingly, bugs were not always on the top of Sinclair’s ‘to-do’ list. He started out studying English and philosophy before realizing his “good marks” were in biology.

“I never really done much hiking and we had these field courses, so I went and it was like ‘Ya, this is what I want to do. I want to run around forests in the rain collecting stuff,’” he says.

It was a guest lecturer in his third year, who introduced Sinclair to the study of insect cold tolerance.

“I was like ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he says. “It was just so interesting. You have these animals that can be frozen solid and then thawed out; you got these different strategies as to why; you get to go to these different places like Antarctica and the mountains. And I was like ‘This is really cool.’”

Sinclair, who teaches a first-year biology course, says it’s always an energetic time with the influx of new students on campus.

“It’s such an exciting time for them to be exposed to so many ideas that you never knew existed,” he says. “Even if it’s not the direction they take in life, the opportunities here allow them to be broad-minded. Going to university is not just all about vocational training, what you got on the exam or what’s going to get me into my career, the point of university of the education itself and the experience of learning skills and critical-thinking.

“The first-year course I teach is a non-major’s class, so these are students from all different faculties and, in many ways, I see it as an important course to teach in biology because I get to expose them to so many different things. I get to learn all this cool stuff and share it with others, and they get excited about it, too.”